Debacle of religious parties is more than evident in Pakistan. No excuse of rigging, no excuse of biased attitude of establishment will work. This way they may console their die hard workers but no one on ground is going to buy this argument. They were eyeing at get majority (or string position) in two provinces but situation is now such that they have been confined to couple of benches in centre as well as provinces (and in some cases even to single seats also). Now for the sake of argument even if we agree to all the above stated excuses and assume that if "rigging" and "selection" (as they accuse PTI and establishment) would not have happened, in that case also gainer would have been mostly Muslim league and not MMA or other religious fronts. At the maximum religious parties would have gained few seats at centre and few more in provinces. And that would have by no ways increased their kitty to any considerable extent nor made them an effective political force. Mandate of Pakistani people is more than evident. It's mostly in favour of Imran, followed by Nawaz Shariff and than People's Party. And in this choice given by Pakistani masses, we don't find religious parties as their political priority anywhere. Leave alone centre, religious parties couldn't garner votes even in those pockets which were considered to be their strongholds (people like Maulana Fazlur Rehman lost and Jamaat couldn't keep their votes intact in their only stronghold). And Imran wave swept them away. More than anyone else this wave bulldozed the weak political structures of religious parties. Such was the wave that in most cases the oldies (mostly of jamaat families) voted in favour of MMA but the young energetic youth of the same were openly in favour of Imran. Now if you don't call it Imran wave and don't agree that he has swept your forts and reached to your families, it is nothing but political naivety of religious parties!
Now some serious questions need to be raised and these need to be discussed more critically. Has the role of religion ended in Pakistani politics and have religious parties in Pakistan reached to their dead end ( as some would argue now) ? As far as first question is concerned (regarding relation between religion and politics) to accept the argument that role of religion has ended is too extreme. Muslim League and Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) represent nothing but the right shade of politics in Pakistan (even PPP for that matter. Even though that is another debate and will take one whole article to elucidate). Now question is when even Muslim League or PTI use religion and religious parties also use religion, were lies the difference? Difference lies in how you view role of religion in politics. For parties like PTI religion and politics have identity relationship while as for religious parties they connect it to faith and give it divine character. This is were the problem lies. When you connect it only at identity level, you always keep scope for compromises which in political field you need to make to remain politically relevant. But when you give it divine character, you simply squeeze that space of compromise for yourself. And when you make compromises (which you have to remain politically relevant) it creates a dichotomy between what you preach and what you practice. And this dents your credibility amongst masses and they don't take you as guardians of faith but exploiters of the same. This is a bitter but hard reality.
Another fact is that these parties (like PTI or Muslim League) have been able to make better use of this tool(religion) . And for religious parties problem is that sometimes they drag it too far by assuming electoral politics as battle between God's army and that of Satan. This is an irrational argument. They try to frighten masses that in case religious parties fail it would mean failure of Islam and that only they are real guardians of religion. Let's get it straight that failure of religious parties is the failure of their policies and wrong decisions and not that of religion. Islam was their even when they weren't existing and Islam will remain their even if they become non existent. Parties, forums and organisations are means and not the end. But these parties get it wrong. They try to present the means as ends and in the middle confuse themselves, their workers and even their voters. And this confusion pushes their voters away from them and brings them closer to those forces who simplify politics for them rather than making it issue of faith and Jannah. Religious parties need to get it straight. They have failed because they aren't able to sense ground level political situation. They need to think and rethink as to why their voter is voting for Imran and Nawaz. When your voter says that he will vote for book (symbol of MMA) at provincial level and for Muslim League or PTI at centre, it speaks how "strongly" you have prepared your voters and how much "faith" they have on you and your candidates! It speaks clearly that their own people lack confidence over their capabilities. When those who were brought up by you or your literature aren't supporting you, how can you assume that others will support you! It clearly means that something is terribly wrong with your strategies and that your own voter is losing confidence on you, leave alone the common voter.
Now does this mean that role of religious parties has ended? To be fair enough I would say no.
But without any doubt their role is now confined to very small limits. Slogans which were their trade marks till yesterday have been appropriated by others and they have succeeded in making those slogans not only more catchy but vote attractors as well. Religious parties need to seriously think as to why they couldn't get votes on the slogans they launched while as these parties not only made them catchy but converted these slogans into vote banks..It again speaks about successful strategies of others and failure of these religious parties and their policy making institutions (if they have any!) . They need to sit down, think calmly and accept it for once that their existing policies are nothing but a bunch of failures. They need to go for a complete overhaul. They need to go more into populist politics, go for division of organisation into various groups which would work separately but are connected by some line of communication. They have to acknowledge that religion should be optimally used in politics because its overdose can only prove to be counter productive. And yes they need to acknowledge one thing and keep it in their mind that they alone aren't custodians of religion. So when they lose or people aren't supporting them rather than passing fatwa on the faith of masses they should go for self introspection and seriously think over the fact that as to why they are being rejected by masses again and again. If people can give them billions in charity, if people can give them lands for constructing Darien ulooms and modern schools then why not votes? Doesn't it mean that people consider them good only at doing at social or charitable work and not politics. And in that case they need to revisit their policies and strategies of last few decades.
And all these things hold true for religious parties (who have political orientation) across globe. Times have changed, so have the dynamics of politics. It isn't anymore now ideological electoral politics rather it's now more about issue based electoral politics. Problem with Islamist parties is that they still are largely confused about this simple fact. One day they acknowledge but on the day of reckoning they go back to their "ideological fronts" and kiss the dust on the day of electoral battle. And may be it happens because the literature they read and distribute has mostly remained unedited from past at least four decades. They face one set of problems on ground and get to one set of solutions. But back home when they pick their ideological books both the problems and solutions given are entirely different from what they witnessed on ground. And this puts them in quagmire of confusion and hence the flawed policies.
P. S. "The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind." Friedrich Nietzsche
(The author teaches history at college level and has special interest in Revivalist movements working in Muslim world)